New York (AP) – It’s a little easier to watch baseball online this year, though no one would call it safe at home quite yet.
Major League Baseball has broadcast games over the Internet since 2002, but always with one huge catch: A blackout on all local team games – both home and away. That protects the league’s lucrative television contracts, but can be a major bummer for fans, particularly since MLB’s definition of “local” is awfully broad.
To watch Chicago Cubs games live on the league’s online service, for instance, you need to be well outside the Chicago metropolitan region. Even Iowa is too close, because the state doesn’t have its own team. In Las Vegas, all five California teams and the Arizona Diamondbacks are blacked out.
This image provided by MLB Advanced Media shows a screen grab of a live broadcast of a Major League Baseball game on an iPad. (MLB Advanced Media via AP)
The league is lifting some of those restrictions this year, provided you already subscribe to a traditional cable or satellite TV package – and don’t mind announcers who are rooting against your home team. A few cable-like TV packages online might offer another alternative.
Here’s what the playing field looks like from your phone or computer these days.
Baseball the MLB way
If you’re a die-hard fan who wants to follow the pennant race, you’re best off with MLB’s premium service, which costs $110 for the season – $20 less than last year – or $25 a month. If the Yankees and the Red Sox are vying for the division’s top spot, the instance, Yankees fans will need the full package to root against the Red Sox.
Also, for the first time, you can follow a single team throughout the season for $85.
Either way, you still can’t watch your hometown team unless you have a separate TV subscription – at least not live. Blackouts lift for on-demand video about 90 minutes after a game ends.
Take me out to the home game
You might be able to get local team games by subscribing to Sony’s PlayStation Vue or Dish’s Sling TV. These TV-over-the-Internet services offer dozens of channels, including some regional sports networks. But neither is comprehensive. For instance, neither offers SportsNet New York, which carries New York Mets games.
Sling TV is cheaper at $20 a month, but it offers only Fox regional networks, including the Yankees’ YES Network. (Be sure to sign up for the “multi-stream” version, which launched as a test service this month.) Sony’s Vue offers Fox and Comcast sports networks as part of “core” packages that cost $35 or $45 a month, depending on the market. Vue requires a Sony PlayStation or an Amazon Fire TV device.
If you’re already a cable customer, you might be able to sign onto your local sports network with your cable password. If that doesn’t work, MLB’s new “Follow Your Team” feature might do the trick when it launches later this year. This gets you games for local teams, free of blackouts – but you’re stuck with feeds from the opposing team’s market.
Following your team this way will cost you a total of $120 for the season, and you’ll still need a cable password. Even then, some teams might not be included.
Going Old School
You can listen to your team’s radio broadcasts online without blackout restrictions. You need an At Bat Premium subscription, which costs $20 for the season or $3 a month. This is included with the full MLB TV package, but not the single-team option.
At Bat Premium also offers Gameday, a graphical depiction of every pitch and every swing almost in real time. You see where runners are on base, how fast each pitch is thrown and where it crosses the plate. It’s a great way to follow games without cloistering yourself under headphones or blasting the play-by-play at others nearby. ESPN has a similar feature called Gamecast.
Scores and more
The free At Bat phone app offers notifications on score changes and player trades. It’s great for casual fans who just want to know results. You can also set it up for rival teams in contention for the pennant.
Voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa can also give you scores and standings on request. Teams also post regular updates on Twitter.
In the stadium
MLB’s Ballpark app for iPhones or Android phones offers stadium maps showing concessions, ATMs and, most importantly, restrooms. Some stadiums even let you order food from the seats.
There’s a separate video package for minor leagues, MiLB.TV; it costs $50 for the season or $13 a month. Not every minor league team is available, though, and a few teams black out home games just like the big leagues.
Voice assistants vary in their coverage of minor leagues. Siri just added scores and schedules for 28 minor and international leagues, while Google Now sends you to websites if you ask for updates.